Breathing and Writing

Meditative breathing helps me regain my concentration.

Meditative breathing helps me regain my concentration.

I once heard Malachy McCourt begin a commencement address memorable for its brazen wisdom. “If you’ve got one foot in the future and one foot in the past,” he said, “it means you’re pissing on the present.”

I was reminded of this vivid image as I was lamenting the tasks still on my To Do (set up an interview, draft an article) while anticipating a visit from my nieces and their kids. Lamenting the past or lamenting the future wasn’t going to help me get this post up. Writing requires being present in the here and now.

Over the years, I’ve developed three fail-safe strategies to bring my mind to bear on the work on my desk regardless of what’s going on at home.

  1. The first method is journaling. Sometimes, I just narrate how I arrived at work – telling the stories of the hurdles I had to jump, which can be anything from scheduling an appointment for my 91-year-old dad to mopping cat barf off the kitchen floor. Other times, I list all the things I need to do at the end of my workday. Listing these tasks helps me see which are essential and which can be delayed if I run out of time. I always run out of time. Happily, there’s no expiration date on housework, which never goes away.

2. The second method is to go for a walk.  There’s something about the rhythm of walking that shakes loose my ideas and empties the noise in my head so I can hear the voice that will inform my prose. I’ve walked thousands of miles in pursuit of concentration. Walking has the added benefit of keeping me fit.

3. In the past year, I’ve been learning a third and highly effective method of calming myself into focus: meditation. I’d failed at meditation many times: I could barely sit still and I could never empty my mind. And then, in an outgrowth of my yoga practice, I’ve learned that I didn’t have to see a blank screen behind my eyelids; all I have to do is pay attention to my breath.

We breathe from the moment we’re born until the moment we die; it’s how we stay alive. Most of the time, we don’t pay any attention to our breath– until we notice we’re holding it, uncertain what to write next. That’s when we run low of oxygen, starving our brain and robbing our blood, paralyzing our lungs and forcing our pulse to gallop until we gasp.

But meditation – simply paying attention to inhaling, then exhaling – is naturally calming.

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Meditative breathing brings me back to the present. In the absolute present, I don’t worry about what I’m going to make for dinner, even though there will be fifteen of us at the table tonight. Instead, I can think clearly and mindfully about the task at hand (crafting this post) and make the best use of the time I have at my desk.

Do you have a method for focusing your concentration?

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-wining novel Into the Wilderness, a story of middle-aged lovers, set in Vermont in 1964. She blogs Wednesdays at




20 thoughts on “Breathing and Writing

  1. I love your basic 3 step process…It makes perfect sense… i love to journal.. which is where I start. Then I sit down at the computer and my thoughts seem to flow from my thoughts in my journal then explode (sometimes) lol …. thank you for the insight. Now for the walking.. I think I may have to set a timer because i forget to go for that walk!I am just learning about meditation…. breathe… etc. – Kind Regards and Sunshine -K

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  4. Journalling and walking has helped me many times over the years to focus on my writing. I’ve also tried and failed many times at meditation, but I’m not ready to give up trying yet.

    • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried . . . and tried again. I’m beginning to believe that writing is the same.

    • I’m continually learning how to push through (as when I have a deadline) and also how to recognize that I would be better off cleaning the oven. Sometimes, though, I just sit at my desk and stare out the window and call it a day of “work”.

  5. Great tips 🙂 Happy you found your own way with meditation. Meditation doesn’t have to be a silent mind, there is mindful meditation walking, guided meditation, image meditation, many to chose from all with the purpose you mentioned to bring awareness to the moment. Love the quote at the beginning too 🙂

    • Yes, I’m learning this. Yesterday, I mediated on safety as I descended a very steep trail in the White Mountains. It worked!

  6. I love meditating and yoga, and using the breath is such a beautiful tool, accessible by everyone at anytime for free. Journaling, writing and yoga – what more does a person need?!!

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  8. I liked the quote you started off with, and can’t deny I too pictured it in my head.
    I would just want to say that meditation cannot work for everyone. You just can’t wake up one day and start meditating. It takes patience to sit at one place with an empty mind.

  9. I really relate to your experience, Deborah, as I am guilty of holding my breath while writing! In fact, I may be holding it this very second, haha! I once heard though that the advantage of holding one’s breath on purpose is that it brings one’s mind into focus. I am not sure though if the stopping of oxygen to one’s brain is worth it! Ha! Thank you for a very inspiring post.

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